tss feature
Health, Health, Beauty + Style

If you use tampons, you need to know about this rare but deadly infection

Melissa Imbesi by Melissa Imbesi
February 18th, 2017
tss feature

When I first got my period at around 12, my mum wouldn’t let me use tampons. I’m not sure whether it was because she was scared I would hurt myself or that she was worried that I’d lose my virginity to a piece of tightly woven cotton, but I begrudgingly listened to her and used pads. And I hated them. The only good thing about them was that I had a get-out-of-school-swimming card to pull out because swimming with a pad would be pretty unsightly. And gross.

It wasn’t until I was 15 that I started using tampons and the first time was a disaster. I didn’t realise that you actually had to insert them all the way up (read: get your finger up there too), so I just put it in so the base of the tampon fit just inside. And it bloody hurt. I went into my older sister’s room and told her about my failed foray into tampon-land and she explained all the do’s and don’ts and since then, I’ve never looked back.

During that convo with my big sis, she also worded me up on Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). I’d heard about it from the girls at school, about how you could die if you left it up there for too long, but I thought it was a bit of an urban legend; like the story of the couple that went parking and the boyfriend was beheaded and the killer was banging his dismembered head on the car roof. That was a goodie. Annnnyyyway, I learnt quickly that Toxic Shock was a very real, and very dangerous thing.

Much loved and convenient....but use with care

Much loved and convenient….but use with care

Since then, I’ve never left a tampon in for longer than four hours. The fact is, TSS is incredibly rare, but also incredibly serious. Since 1981, there has only been 25 reported cases in Australia, so the odds of you getting it are really low, but you still need to be aware of the symptoms. More importantly, we need to inform all the young girls and women in our lives about it and share all the relevant information with them.

One such woman who has recently raised awareness about TSS is 19-year-old Phoebee Banbury, a student who was left fighting for her life for two weeks in hospital after getting the bacterial infection. Phoebee had been suffering from really heavy periods and one day, just after finishing her university exams, she started to feel sick. It began with a headache, which progressed to vomiting, but Phoebee put the illness down to stress brought on by exam pressure. That night, things got much worse.

Phoebee said, “I was shivering really uncontrollably. All of my muscles were aching and I just really didn’t feel well at all.” While her boyfriend thought she’d just contracted a virus, she had known of a couple of people who had died from TSS in the past. “It was ticking over in my head and I thought I knew what it sounded like,” said Phoebee. “I went and got a box of tampons and read out all the symptoms of Toxic Shock Syndrome. Everything matched.” After a phone call to emergency services, Phoebee was advised to get to the hospital immediately and once there, she was placed on an IV drip.

Along with her headache, pain in her stomach and aching joints, Phoebee had a raging temperature of 39.7 and was given a mix of antibiotics and painkillers to help fight the infection. For twelve days, Phoebee’s body swelled, she continued to vomit and run an extremely high fever. She’s sharing her story to bring awareness to other women of the signs and symptoms of TSS, which left untreated, can result in organ failure, or even death. Her advice? “The best advice would be not to use tampons at all, but I know for a lot of people that isn’t an option. It’s important to make yourself aware of the symptoms and if you do get them, get straight to a hospital.”

Phoebee said that she never left a tampon in for longer than eight hours and at the time of her TSS onset, she was not wearing a tampon.

Phoebee during her recovery

Phoebee during her recovery

What you need to know:

– Toxic Shock Syndrome is caused by the Staphylococcus or Streptococcus strain, which is a bacteria that lives (harmlessly) in the mouth, nose or skin. When the bacteria gets into the bloodstream, it releases toxins into the deep tissue which attacks the body’s internal organs.

– While anyone can get TSS, there is a link between it and tampon use, most notably ones that are super absorbent.

– There is no definitive answer as to why tampons may cause TSS, however theories include minute scratches inside the vagina from the fibres on the tampon which allow for bacteria to make its way into the bloodstream. Another is that the length of time a tampon is left inside the vagina makes it a perfect breeding ground for the Staph and Strep bacterias.


– Sudden high temperature of 39 degrees and above

– Vomiting and diarrhoea

– Flu-like symptoms and muscular aches and joint pains

– Low blood pressure

–  A rash on the skin resembling sunburn

– Peeling of skin on hands and feet

– Sore throat

– Confusion

– Difficulty breathing

– Red eyes

How to reduce the risk of TSS:

– Change tampons at least every four hours

– Avoid tampons with applicators, as these may scratch the inner vaginal walls

– Use pads overnight

– Thoroughly wash hands before and after inserting and removing tampons

– Once unwrapped, use the tampon immediately

– Avoid the super-absorbent varieties

– When you’re at the end of your period, choose pads or liners, or consider using lubricant to avoid abrasions when inserting

Do you know anyone who has suffered from TSS?

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